Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Mola Mola Madness! Bird-A-Thon 2021

Written by Meredith Elliott, Senior Scientist

Just as the Mola mola is not like other fish, this Bird-A-Thon was not like other Bird-A-Thons.

In some ways, it was much like previous years. As I headed to the Marin Headlands Visitor Center, a text came in from Laura to let us know she was going to be late. It was still dark at 7:00 am as I pulled my car into the visitor center parking lot, and I noticed how cold and windy it was. Diana and Joycelyn soon drive up and park. I tell them about the great-horned owl I heard at 4:00 am, and we start pointing out birds we see: a group of Canada geese flying in a V towards Rodeo Lagoon, common raven and American crow (looking them up in Sibley to make sure we know the differences), European starling (sparking a conversation of how that species ended up here). Joycelyn shows us the butterfly guide that she has, complete with tabs marking the species we are likely to see here this time of year. Definitely ready for butterflies, which is great, as Marcia Grand (long-time Point Blue supporter and donor to our Bird-A-Thon) has challenged us to find butterflies. We think we see a red-tailed hawk hovering in the distance when Laura pulls up. After some introductions and a restroom break, we pile into my car and drive up to Hawk Hill—but not before getting the obligatory morning picture with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

It’s about now that I’m reminded of our friends across the country who are joining us and making this Bird-A-Thon different than past ones. Joining us for a day of birding by text are Juliemar and Nina (our Doris Duke Conservation Scholars that Point Blue hosted this summer) and Sara (former Point Blue biologist). We all check our phones, and Juliemar (in Gainesville, FL) has texted us a couple of pictures: one is of a cute little frog in her hand, and the other is an alligator’s head peaking out of some algae-covered waters. “I don’t think these count but thought I’d share! Frog and alligator. :)”

“Alligator?! Awesome, where are you birding?” chimes in Sara (in Kansas City, KS).

“Zebra Longwing butterfly”
Juliemar is on a roll—now she’s seeing butterflies.
“Awesome, it’ll be cool to see everyone’s pics—I’m in Kansas City, KS so it’s much different here!”
“Yea we have people all over! I’m excited :)” responds Juliemar.
Sara sends some pictures of where she is birding, with lush trees, the Kansas River, and a winding trail through a forested area. “Current habitat”. Gorgeous, I think, as I click the heart emoji on each picture.
“Little blue heron”. It’s Juliemar, with a picture AND video of the bird.

“Great blue heron”
“Green anoles”
Juliemar is crushing it, we all exclaim.
“Baby limpkins”

It’s hard to keep up with Juliemar’s rapid-fire of pictures and videos.
I’ve never seen a Limpkin”, says Sara. I nod my head in agreement—neither have I!
We send pictures of each other. We’re cold in California, while Sara’s hot in Kansas.

Juliemar continues adding to her list and sharing pictures. Great egret, marsh rabbit, apple snails, gar fish. We are all impressed with all the wildlife Juliemar is seeing.

Meanwhile, the California contingent is realizing that today is part of San Francisco’s Fleet Week, and that there are plenty of ships to see, one of which is the USS Michael Monsoor, which is a guided missile destroyer. We marvel and cringe at its sight, while receive a video of a skink eating a frog from Juliemar.

“Holy crap!!!”, I exclaim.

“Whoa!”, says Sara.

“HOW ARE U SEEING SO MANY THINGS”, asks Diana in wonderment.

Juliemar says that the trail is flooded and she has to turn around. We all agree that she saw so much on that trail.

There is a train chugging by Sara in Kansas. “Birding in the Midwest… no ships, but trains instead.” I guess we all have reminders of human presence in our respective birding experiences.

As the group in California refocuses our effort to actually find some wildlife, a flock of band-tailed pigeons flies overhead. Not long after, we meet Holly, a Golden Gate Raptor Observatory docent who is getting ready to start her day of observations and outreach on Hawk Hill. We ask her when the best time to see raptors on Hawk Hill, and she says that late morning is typically a good time. Bummer—we’re too early. But wait, what’s that over there? A Cooper’s hawk, and then a sharp-shinned hawk. Holly points out the difference in size and flight behaviors of the two accipiters. We also see and hear American goldfinch, lesser goldfinch, and Bewick’s wren. Just then, a very light-colored hawk soars overhead, and Holly informs us that it is a broad-winged hawk; while it’s still early, this may be our bird-of-the-day!

There are two peregrine falcons flying and stooping, and we spend some time just watching them do their thing. Holly has to go and start her day, but we thank her before she leaves. She’s happy to chat with people who are interested in birds, so the gratitude is mutual.
Time to head down from Hawk Hill. The horrendous steps that have taken us up to Hawk Hill in years passed are roped off due to trail maintenance activities, so Laura and I point them out to Diana and Joycelyn. Glad we are letting gravity help us this year instead of tackling those stairs! As we walk down the trail, we see an American kestrel and a group of California quail. We stop to set up the scope and point it down at the beaches far below us—and we manage to see Brandt’s cormorant, western gull, and a few black oystercatchers chasing the waves. I try to get a picture through the scope, and it’s terrible. I send it out anyway, and Sara texts, “Aw, love it :)“. Diana points out a few bottlenose dolphins surfacing.

After a restroom break, we continue on through the coastal scrub to find golden-crowned sparrow and California scrub jay. Joycelyn has her butterfly eyes on and spots a cabbage white. Laura hears a northern flicker, and we get the scope on it to see its head peaking over the top of the tree.

Black phoebe, red-shouldered hawk, chestnut-backed chickadee, mourning dove, spotted towhee, and western bluebird are observed on the trail to the visitor center. Joycelyn and Diana take pictures of a few small, orange butterflies on the trail. It’s time to break for lunch, and during lunch, Joycelyn and Diana compare the butterfly pictures to the butterfly guide, and they decide that they are wood skippers.
After lunch, we head to Rodeo Lagoon. The wind is strong now, making whitecaps in the lagoon. This makes the usually busy lagoon a bird ghost town. Only mallard and Canada goose are spotted on the east side of the lagoon.

Rodeo Beach is also slow due to the wind. In some years, we have seen loons offshore, but not today. Nothing but foam from the wind. We do see an old dead cetacean on the beach, as well as a pelagic cormorant. Before crossing the bridge at the north end of the beach, we stop to look along the lagoon, and sure enough, a Say’s phoebe is perched on some dead vegetation. Diana takes a picture.

Scanning the lagoon with the scope, we also see pied-billed grebe, double-crested cormorant, and a couple of either eared or horned grebes; they had a lot of white on the neck, so we suspect horned grebe, but decide they are too far away to make a final determination. The Blue Angels are doing some amazing acrobatic flights above, and we wonder if this (in addition to wind) is disturbing wildlife and making for a very slow birding day. Aircraft is flying so low today and the noise is quite loud in this normally quiet place. We notice birds like the Canada goose and western gull turn their heads upward and change their flight trajectory in response to the noisy aerial activity. I make a mental reminder to check the calendar for Fleet Week when scheduling our Bird-A-Thon next year, as I don’t care to repeat this.
Walking through the offices and nature camp buildings to the north of the lagoon, we see California towhee (finally—what took us so long?). Some trees east of the buildings reveal a Townsend’s warbler. We make our way back to the visitor center, lamenting the slow day, but reminding each other to look for more species this evening. It’s not over yet!

As we make our way to our respective homes, we pass a sign to remind people not to feed wildlife:

We all chime in with texts. Not a normal Bird-A-Thon, but so fun to connect with others across the country.

Here’s a comprehensive list of birds and butterflies observed by our different team members. We saw a combined total of 71 species of birds and 6 species of butterflies:

Great horned owl
Red-tailed hawk
Canada goose
Common raven
European starling
American crow
White-crowned sparrow
Anna’s hummingbird
Band-tailed pigeon
Cooper’s hawk
Lesser goldfinch
American goldfinch
Bewick’s wren
Sharp-shinned hawk
Turkey vulture
Broad-winged hawk
Peregrine falcon
Yellow-rumped warbler
American kestrel
California quail
Western gull
Brandt’s cormorant
Black oystercatcher
Golden-crowned sparrow
Northern flicker
California scrub jay
Black phoebe
Red-shouldered hawk
Chestnut-backed chickadee
Mourning dove
Spotted towhee
Western bluebird
Saye’s phoebe
Pied-billed grebe
Song sparrow
Eared/horned grebe
Double-crested cormorant
California towhee
Townsend’s warbler
Belted kingfisher
Long-billed curlew
Great egret
Snowy egret
Great blue heron
Brown pelican
Little blue heron
Black-capped chickadee
Blue jay
House finch
Downy woodpecker
Northern cardinal
American robin
Chimney swift
Alder flycatcher
Tufted titmouse
White-breasted nuthatch
Rough-legged hawk
Gray catbird
Eastern bluebird
Red-headed woodpecker
Chipping sparrow
Northern mockingbird
Red-winged blackbird
White ibis
Brown thrasher
Hairy woodpecker
Carolina wren

Zebra longwing butterfly
Cabbage white
Woodland skipper
Cloudless sulphur
Eastern tiger swallowtail

Honorable mentions
Frog (unknown species)
Marsh rabbit
Apple snail
Green anoles
Skink (unknown species)
Bottlenose dolphin
Cetacean (unknown species, dead)
Pelagic cormorant (dead)